Stone Town is also known as Mji Mkongwe, which means ‘Old Town’ in Swahili, is the old part of Zanzibar and is an excellent example of a Swahili coastal trading town of East Africa. The 96 hectare area, which makes up approximately 5.4% of the total area of Zanzibar town, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000. With approximately 18,000 inhabitants the area reflects the diverse influences underlying the Swahili culture, with a unique mixture of Moorish, Arab, Indian, Persian and European elements.
One of the most impressive examples of the Swahili culture in Stone Town is the large wooden ‘Zanzibar doors’ that can be found throughout the cobbled alleyways. In the 1980s an inventory reported around 800 of these historic doors however this number has since decreased. There are two main types of doors in Stone Town; Indian doors and Arabic doors. The Indian, or Gujarati, doors have square shutters and can be seen along the busy bazaar streets where the Indian businessmen lived. The Arab doors often have an inscription in Arabic (usually a phrase from the Quran) and a richly decorated frame. Most of the wooden doors in Stone Town are adorned with sharp, brass knobs. This custom comes from India where the knobs were said to prevent elephants from crushing the doors. In Zanzibar they were used as a symbol of wealth.
Zanzibar has great symbolic importance in the suppression of slavery. It was both a main slave port and the base from which anti-slavery crusaders, such as David Livingstone, conducted their campaign.
The Cathedral Church of Christ Zanzibar stands on the site of the slave market that was used in the 18th and 19th centuries, at the height of Zanzibar’s slave trade. A group of UMCA missionaries travelled to East Africa in 1861, following the call of David Livingstone to oppose the slave trade and spread Christianity across East Africa. In 1864 they settled in Zanzibar after a number of other sites proved unsuccessful. When the slave market was closed by Sultan Barghash in 1873 the missionaries bought the site and almost immediately started building the cathedral. The first service was held on Christmas day 1877, before the roof was finished. It is said that the altar stands on the site of a tree to which the slaves were tied and whipped to show their strength and hardness. Within the cathedral is a crucifix made from the wood of the tree under which David Livingstone died (in Zambia) and under which his heart is buried.
Today nothing remains of the old slave market however next to the cathedral is the ‘slaves monument’. The statues of the chained slaves serve as a memorial to the largest slave market of Zanzibar and the last legally operating slave market in the world. The Arab slave trade lasted for over a millennium as slave traders bribed, pillaged and kidnapped to meet the high demand for slaves.
Under a nearby building is one the 15 holding cells that remain in Stone Town. Damp and dark, these cells were designed to hold approximately 65 slaves awaiting sale. The cells are barely tall enough for a grown person to stand and some of the cells still contain etchings and final messages left by slaves.
CRUISE: Silversea‘s Silver Cloud from Mombasa to Cape Town.